‘Nightingale’ by Einosuke Itō, translated by Geoffrey Sargent

Enigmatic, subtle and poignant are adjectives often used to describe Japanese writing, but you do occasionally find stories that are more raucous and chaotic, and Itō’s 1938 piece ‘Nightingale’ is a wonderful example of the type. We enter a rural police station one evening in the company of an elderly woman hoping for news of a foster daughter taken from her years before, and we stay there for a day (and forty pages) as the hard-working local police officers do their best to cope with a deluge of visitors, including a woman accused of being an illegal midwife, an adulterer and a chicken thief coming to blows, and a shady character who has been fleeced of his money by a man dressed as a woman. The story rarely stops for breath, and though all these anecdotes of poor people trying to scrape by, the story of the old woman runs in the background, in a tale that never outstays its welcome. It’s a portrait of human nature at its best, with petty squabbles forgotten when someone really needs help – and I haven’t even mentioned the nightingale. This collection was out of print for a while, but Tuttle recently rereleased it (with a new essay included), so you should be able to find a copy fairly easily.

First published in 1938. Included in Modern Japanese Short Stories: Twenty-Five Stories by Japan’s Leading Writers, Tuttle Publishing, 2019